Gary K. Clabaugh

Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

Edited December 15, 2016

Much obeisance is paid to the need for a “multicultural” school curriculum. How else, ask the disciples, can educators promote a sense of empowerment and worth in all Americans? How else can they truly engage the many communities they serve? How else can they run schools that are strong and accountable community institutions?

All of this is true enough. But it does not change the fact that groups, be they tribes or nations, compete for limited resources at one another’s expense. It’s a zero sum game. If we win, they lose. And this competition defines multiculturalism’s limits. Why? Because it is difficult to even tolerate, much less honor, another group’s culture when that group’s gain is your group’s loss. 

Sound far removed from schooling? Not so. Here is how this limitation was revealed during an actual lesson. An E.S.O.L. tutor for the School District of Philadelphia was helping a Haitian-American fourth grader write a book report. The book was to be about an American “minority achiever.” She chose a biography of Crazy Horse, the Sioux chief who co-lead the annihilation of Custer’s command.

The tutor helped the Haitian-American youngster with a secret smile. She doubted that the Custer massacre was the sort of “minority achievement” the assigning teacher had in mind.

The report format required students to describe the particular accomplishment of their “minority achiever.” So the tutor asked the young lady what Crazy Horse’s achievement was. She remarked that in battle with other Indians, Crazy Horse’s bravery had been so reckless that his original name: “His Looking Horse,” was changed to “Crazy Horse.”

She admired that. But the accomplishment she most admired was that Crazy Horse led resistance to white encroachment on the Black Hills; a region the Sioux regarded as sacred and which a solemn treaty (1868) promised to them “…for as long as grass should grow and water flow.[1] That promise, the Haitian-American girl wryly noted, was made before the discovery of the “…yellow metal that makes the Wasichus [white man crazy.”[2]

The report format required students to imagine they could sit down with the “minority achiever” and ask them any question. So the tutor queried, “What would you ask Crazy Horse?”” The girl surprised the tutor with her answer. She said she wanted to ask him why, before the arrival of the white man, he had fought and killed many other Indians?

Her question brings us up against multiculturalism’s limit. It is that material resources are limited, groups urgently compete for them; and if one group gains, others must lose. Crazy Horse killed other Native-Americans for exactly the same reasons Custer killed Indians. To gain personal advancement and grab another “tribe’s” resources.

 In that context, white lust for Black Hills gold was substantially similar to the Lakota’s lust for other tribe’s hunting grounds, horses and women. And had native Americans regarded gold as valuable, they would have competed for that too. Black Elk even said: “Our people knew there was yellow metal in little chunks up there; but did not bother with it, because it was not good for anything.”[3] 

The difficulty the Lakota’s had with whites wasn’t that whites were more evil or covetous than they were. It was that whites were many times more efficient at grabbing what they wanted. The Indians weren’t more noble; they simply were less capable of successful aggression.

Admittedly, whites were graceless winners. They did not even grant Native-Americans citizenship until 1926. They forced their children into government schools and attempted to make them into ersatz whites. And they certainly will never give back Native-American lands. Black Elk observed: “My people’s dream died in bloody snow.” (He was referring to the U.S. Army’s final and particularly repellent massacre of the Lakota at Wounded Knee.) And no matter how much “multicultural” schools celebrate the noble red man, we will always be the ones who murdered their dream in order to realize ours. Moreover, our nation was built on many murdered dreams. And pious demands for multiculturalism will never totally obscure this cultural blood-letting.

Competition for resources has long existed and will continue to exist, “…for as long as grass should grow and water flow.” And that means multiculturalism is generally limited to winners granting token recognition to the losers.


[1]John Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks, (New York: Pocket Books, 1959) p. 66